M.G. Vassanji is one of the lesser known diaspora novelists who have tackled realities unique to new, post-colonial nations. Long after the powerful works of V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie altered the world’s perceptions about post-colonial India, Vassanji’s five novels—among them, The Book of Secrets and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, both of which won the Giller Prize—presented a sweeping, if less abiding, world view shaped by India and Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a time when ideas about identity, power and freedom were raw and important in both countries, and when a truly authentic India or Africa were yet to be born. Vassanji was born and raised in Tanzania, Africa, before he made Toronto, Canada, his permanent home.
The Assassin’s Song: Penguin, 375 pages, Rs495.
As evident in his new novel, The Assassin’s Song, 57-year-old Vassanji is equally comfortable in the West, where he completed his higher education to become a nuclear physicist. The book is set partly in a shrine town of Gujarat and partly in Boston, and both worlds coincide through the fate of a fractured family.
It opens in the cloistered world of Karsan Dargawalla at Pirbaag, shrine of Nur Fazal, a medieval Sufi saint who happened to wander into the village in the 13th century during his travels through the world. In flashback mode, Karsan takes us into Pirbaag in the aftermath of the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002, when the shrine was destroyed.
It is the 1960s; India is a new nation and the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi are still revered. The Dargawalla family—Karsan, the novel’s protagonist, his younger brother Mansoor, who eventually becomes a bigot with terrorist leanings, their father, the lord of the shrine, and their mother, who is sympathetic to Karsan’s secret ambitions. A variety of characters—some believable, some contrived and exotic—visit the shrine. Pran Nath, “a busybody and gossip”, the horrifying “smallpox lady, her dark face covered in pustules, her grey eyes staring vacantly ahead” and “the thin man from Goshala with blue handkerchief tied around his head” lend the shrine a brooding character, while the green of the fields, faded brick gateposts and coloured cotton chaddars make the setting real.
The first half of the narrative has a visual richness, which Vassanji is likely to have achieved through short visits to the country of his ancestors. He writes on his website: “The song of the title refers to the centuries-old singing of mystical devotional poetry at Sufi shrines… The inspiration for the book came from the shrines I visited, related to the Gujarati Khoja tradition.” This is the first novel from him that deals so extensively with rural Indian characters and at times, their realities seem laboured, exoticized. Peripheral references to the political canvas of the time punctuate the human drama: “It would have been 1961 or 1962, Fidel Castro and Cuba were very much in the news. There was talk of the Third World and Panchsheel, the friendship among non-aligned nations that our Prime Minister Nehru much favoured.”
The family’s life is more or less unaffected by these changes. When Karsan is proclaimed the heir to his father as the lord of the shrine, his happy childhood crumbles. He longs to be “just ordinary”, to play cricket and be part of the world he reads about in newspapers. When, surprisingly, he is accepted at Harvard, he defies his father and goes “into the beating heart of the world”. His new discoveries at Harvard give him the life he wanted—intellectual growth, material success and marital bliss in a suburb in British Columbia, where he is a professor. But his heritage continues to haunt him and finally, when a personal tragedy strikes in Canada and Pirbaag is devastated by communal violence, he returns to India and Pirbaag to discover what, if anything, is left from his childhood.
The book may not open new windows to the world, but the ease with which Vassanji writes about worlds separated by time and values is striking.